Established in 2015, Maria Health operates an online marketplace that allows for easier access to various health insurance products. The products the company carries comes from its partner health maintenance organizations (HMOs).
There are many ways for startup founders to raise funding, gain exposure and expand their networks in markets where they are operating.
Most of these didn’t come easy for Vincent Lau. The 36-year-old Chinese-American was born and raised in Oakland City, California but is building a platform called Maria Health to expand private health insurance coverage among employees of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the Philippines.
By the time Lau graduated from the University of California Berkeley in 2010 with a degree in economics, he had not even set foot in the Philippines. Much of what he knew of the country came secondhand from long talks with UC Berkeley buddy Paul Rivera, the founder of human resources startup Kalibrr.
After working at several Silicon Valley-based startups for eight years as a product manager, Lau decided that, after much convincing from Rivera, he would come to the Philippines to start his own company. He was inspired both by Rivera’s own startup and the opportunities he saw in the country to solve very real issues.
“When you look at Silicon Valley, there’s not a real problem to solve now [because] the markets are so mature,” Lau told Entrepreneur Philippines. “Over the past eight years, he’s [Rivera] been convincing me to come to the Philippines, and I was inspired by what they were doing with Kalibrr, how they’re solving the skills gap with jobs. [So] we started to look for ideas… and Paul said, ‘Look into healthcare.’”
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The lack of natural links to the Philippines didn’t deter Lau from setting up his startup in the country. Of course, he benefited immensely from initial contacts provided by Rivera, who introduced him to a health insurance industry veteran, Anna Yu, who would later become his co-founder and chief HMO officer in Maria Health."
Business Reality TV Show
He also tried novel means to get to meet potential investors, partners and clients. Perhaps the most audacious of these was joining a local business reality TV show and contest, The Final Pitch, which aired last year on History Channel, a cable television program. The show’s second season is airing on CNN Philippines this June 2018.
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The Chinese-American entrepreneur was chosen as one of the 10 contestants who competed in the show’s first season, all of whom vied to obtain mentorship, support and funding from the show’s four judges, who were all veteran Philippine businessmen from different industries.
Speaking to Entrepreneur Philippines about his time in the show, the Maria Health co-founder and CEO primarily saw The Final Pitch as a good platform to promote his startup. While he was looking to raise funds for the company, Lau revealed that he had also joined the contest for the exposure to more investors and connections in the Philippines.
“The Final Pitch was very interesting for us as a company because we needed local people that can help us build a brand,” said Lau.
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Maria Health became an instant favorite among the judges who recognized the huge importance of its mission to make healthcare affordable to employees of MSMEs, which made up 99.6 percent of all enterprises in the Philippines and employed 63.3 percent of the workforce in 2016, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.
“I’m very happy that finally, there is a business which is an app that doesn’t focus just on search engines and events and things you sell online,” said Maria Francesca “Mica” Tan, CEO of angel investing firm MFT Group and one of the show’s judges, after Lau’s initial business pitch. “This is something basic that the country really needs.”